Uganda: Experts Set Terms to End Lockdown

Government scientists have outlined a raft of targets to be met if the ending 42-day lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19, is to be lifted instead of being extended.

President Museveni, Health minister Ruth Aceng said yesterday, will address Ugandans this weekend to communicate the next course of action after the lapse, by our count tomorrow, of the current lockdown imposed effective 10pm on June 18.

At the time, daily Covid-19 infections had for the first time since Uganda registered its index case in March 2020, grossed 1,000 while fatalities per day hit 50 and hospitals, like critically-ill patients, gasped for scarce medical oxygen.

Now the daily infections rates are down at 200-plus and Covid-related deaths scattered after President Museveni shut schools to disperse 15 million students, closed worship places and stopped public transport alongside unauthorised self-drives and revived roadblocks, manned by police and soldiers, to prevent inter-district travel.

Against this background, scientists due to hold a crunch meeting today, have revealed some of the considerations to inform their deliberations, which in turn will be the basis of advice to be tendered to inform the President’s final call on the lockdown.

They argue that for them to recommend lifting of the lockdown, the second in 16 months, Covid beds occupancy must be vacant by 75 per cent, positivity rate for the disease should drop to 5 per cent or lower while half of the country’s population – about 22 million citizens — should be vaccinated.

In addition, Ugandans should commit to strictly adhere to preventive measures, otherwise called standard operating procedures or SOPs.

Dr Misaki Wayengera, the head of government Scientific Advisory Committee on Covid-19, told Daily Monitor yesterday that even after meeting the targets, the lockdown will be lifted gradually.

“We need to have about 75 per cent of hospital beds for Covid-19 management free. And then the positivity rate should be 5 per cent or below for us to consider lifting the lockdown. We begin opening up slowly, we don’t open at once,” he said.

However, according to Ministry of Health statistics, the country currently has 677 patients admitted in various health facilities, 631 in public facilities and 46 in private facilities. This means up to 82 per cent of the 3,793 beds for Covid-19 patients that President Museveni said the country was having, is free.

The Ministry’s statistics also indicate that the Covid-19 positivity rate is at 10 per cent, which by the scientists’ prescription, requires to be halved for them to give a nod to reopening of the country.

Minister Aceng, speaking in a televised address to the nation yesterday, said to safely reopen the economy, the country will need to vaccinate half of the population, which is roughly 22 million people.

She, however, said only 1.1 million people have so far been vaccinated since March 10 when the country launched nationwide immunisation against the pandemic.

“A cumulative total of 902,293 people have received the first dose of the vaccine while 232,743 have received the second dose of the vaccine,” she said.

The low number of people vaccinated in the country is similar to what is happening in many developing countries around the world as developed countries where the vaccines are being manufactured snap up stocks of the life-saving jabs.

The minister said the government has placed orders for 9 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines through Covax and that $3 million (Shs10.5 billion) has been paid for another two million doses of Johnson&Johnson vaccine, manufactured in the United States, which is being purchased through the African Union. She didn’t specify when the country will get the vaccines.

But Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Ministry of Health spokesperson, earlier said they are also expecting to receive a donation of 286,080 doses of AstraZeneca on July 30, and another 300,000 doses of Sinovac Vaccines on July 31 in fulfilment of a pledge months ago by the Chinese government.

Prof David Sserwadda, the head of scientists advising the government on vaccine access and deployment, said even after vaccine coverage improves in the country, there will still be need to adhere to prevention measures.

“We are seeing a reduction in transmission and hospitalisation, [but] our vaccination rate is not that high to be able to make a huge impact on transmission rate. Much of the reduction in transmission is possibly because people are following SOPs, reduced crowding which [decreases] the spread of the infection and handwashing. This [observing SOPs] will remain critical even when we have high vaccination rate,” he said.

Dr Aceng said the lifting of the lockdown depends largely on the active participation of the population in infection control by adhering to preventive measures.

“[The] government will continue to put in place measures to ensure that no super spreader events/activities are conducted to avoid escalation of the Covid-19 outbreak. Moving forward, enforcement of the SOPs must be enhanced as per the Public Health Act and the Statutory Instruments by all district task forces,” she said.

The minister added: “The general public should ensure that masks are correctly worn at all times in public places, handwashing facilities/hand sanitisers are available and easily accessible by all. Similarly, all mass gatherings of any nature should not happen.”

Dr Aceng said the National Taskforce on Covid-19 is meeting today to determine the fate of the lockdown, but that President Museveni will take and announce a final position.

“The 42 days will end on July 30 and on the same day, the President will address the nation… . You should wait to listen from the person [Mr Museveni] who has been commanding this response on what further needs to be done,” Dr Aceng said.